Sailing ships on scientific missions

Tara velero oceanográfico

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In the near future, sailboats will be used for scientific missions instead of large vessels.

Today, a well-designed and certified sailing vessel, operated by a team of trained scientists, could carry out multidisciplinary hydro-oceanographic campaigns in the Atlantic Ocean, the Antarctic or other continental shelves including also rivers and estuaries of the world.

Together with computer equipment, new digital technologies, navigation satellites and their excellent forecasts anywhere in the world, it is now possible to carry out scientific survey programmes on much smaller vessels than those used today.

When we speak of an “ocean-going sailboat”, we mean both a motor-sailing boat and a sailing boat with an auxiliary engine. The differences are as follows:

In the motorsailer, the propulsion engine is powerful enough to propel the boat against the headwind. 

And in the sailboat with auxiliary engine, the propulsion machine has the necessary power to propel the boat in calm seas, in winds that are not headwinds and in protected waters, but it does not have enough power to propel it against a hard headwind or big waves.


Some of the practical applications that could be carried out on board a sailboat are:

Measurements of environmental variables, both in water and air, along sailing routes.

Geological surveys by seismic and side scan sonar surveys including sediment sampling by light equipment.

Investigation and survey in rivers, including their interaction with oceans, seas or estuaries.

Hydrographic surveys in poorly mapped or unmapped areas.

Oceanographic hydrographic measurements of all types, including the determination of the properties of water masses by means of vertical profiles and multi-parametric sensors, as well as their sampling for laboratory analysis.

Mooring and recovery of data acquisition instruments such as surface buoys or bottom-supported equipment.

Research campaigns and study of habitats and archaeological remains (including high-resolution imaging by side scan sonar).

Sampling campaigns and various studies related to water and sediment pollution (including plastics and microplastics, a phenomenon of great global concern today) and plankton (the basis of life on the planet and whose genetic code is of growing scientific interest).

Tara velero


There are many advantages to incorporating sailboats for these tasks, some of which are detailed below:

Size and draught.  Depending on the design, it will have one draft or another. The option of using a retractable keel could substantially reduce the draft in protected waters. 

In addition, this type of boat is very useful for navigating rivers, sandbanks and even entering sheltered beaches where it could be left dry at low tide.

Price. The cost of building a sailboat in aluminium or steel is much more accessible and cheaper. Construction is possible in smaller, local boatyards or workshops. 

The daily operating cost of a sailboat is also lower than that of a motor boat. It needs less crew and consumes less fuel, and mooring costs are also lower, as is the cost of maintenance in general.

Very low noise level. Perfect for working with acoustic equipment as you can do passive listening while under sail, with hydrophones, for listening and researching marine mammals. Sonar and seismic profilers allow better signals to be obtained than with conventional vessels currently used for this type of work.

A well-designed sailing vessel can stay at sea in really extreme conditions. The range of positive stability in a sailboat exceeds 120°, i.e. it can recover from a “lay-up” and can withstand bad weather in good safety by “lay-hauling”, with very little sail, bow out to sea, or using a “sea anchor or cape”. 

The yacht can return to port without external assistance, using only the sails, even with the propulsion system out of service due to failure.

Low carbon footprint. By using low amounts of fuel a sailing boat generates very little carbon.


Low capacity to operate heavy equipment in very deep water as it is very difficult for a sailing vessel to have a deep-water winch due to its volume and weight.


In conclusion, there is great potential for the use of a sailing vessel in hydro-oceanographic research and it will surely increase as new technologies are developed.

Source: by Lic. Horacio Ezcurra

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